A crisis is a terrible thing to waste – moving from blame to redesigning more resilient systems

Aerial view of oil being burned from the Deepwater Horizon/BP incident, May 19, 2010.

Aerial view of oil being burned from the Deepwater Horizon/BP incident, May 19, 2010. U.S Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer John Kepsimeli

A few weeks ago Naomi Klein provided us with a very close-up yet systems-like view of looking at this disaster in her Guardian column – Gulf oil spill: A hole in the world. In this article she takes us into local meetings, and looks at wider policy initiatives. As she says, “the most positive possible outcome of this disaster would be not only an acceleration of renewable energy sources like wind, but a full embrace of the precautionary principle in science. The mirror opposite of Hayward’s “If you knew you could not fail” credo, the precautionary principle holds that “when an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health” we tread carefully, as if failure were possible, even likely.”

The calamity that is the massive oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico has been at the forefront of world media for almost 90 days now. The death of the 11 oil-rig workers, the loss of countless fish, turtles, birds and other marine life, and the impact on local jobs are all inextricably linked, and yet each is a tragedy in its own right. Clearly there’s a lot of blame to go around for the ongoing disaster in the gulf. As the Grist writers point out in the weeks since the Horizon rig first came unglued, all the principals in this mess have taken turns pointing fingers at one another. They even created a pie chart showing their estimation of “Who’s to blame for the Gulf oil gusher“. However, as Marilyn Paul says in an article in The Systems Thinker a few years ago titled, “Moving from Blame to Accountability,” “Where there is blame, open minds close, inquiry tends to cease, and the desire to understand the whole system diminishes. . . . Blame rarely enhances our understanding of our situation and often hampers effective problem solving.”

Making people and organizations accountable is important. But more importantly we need to take the opportunity to look at the underlying system that led to this crisis and develop long-term solutions that help prevent future crises. This may require us to look hard at our energy dependency, and look again at the risks it poses in terms of environmental damage and global change. Russ Linden reminds us that Paul Romer, a Stanford economist, coined the term “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste” in his blog of the same name. This view encourages us to look beyond the immediate challenge inherent in crises to look for the opportunities. As Linden points out when a crisis arises a number of opportunities that can support a more positive systems change also emerge:

    • Resources become available
    • Different priorities come into focus
    • Rigid rules and regulations suddenly become pliable
    • Leaders pay attention and are accessible
    • Change, even far-reaching change, is possible

What is important that we involve the right people in this process, and that means involving more than the usual suspects. Solving problems associated with developing more resilient societal systems is not just about changing the behaviour of individual actors, businesses and communities, but about seeking new ways of thinking about systems, neighbours and holistic planning. While individual stakeholders may make the ultimate decisions on-the-ground (e.g. do we use as much petrol or electricity this month), others play an active role in creating the context that enables – or inhibits – constructive change (i.e. what policies will support constructive change here). Consequently, an important part of successful change is about engaging stakeholders in the process of learning and adaptive management and about negotiating how to move forward in a complex world, where we do not have all the information. Seen in this way engaging with the bigger problems are not just the mandate of national and regional agencies and government, others from science, business, and the requisite public interest groups all hold keys that are important to support overall change. Nor is there likely to be one big answer, it will be a case of all these different groups making their own tweaks and adaptations to the way they go about their daily business.

Central to this more collaborative approach are tools for systems thinking and the development of platforms for dialogue and negotiation to occur between and across different stakeholder groups. the Learning for Sustainability page on negotiation and dialog provides a range of resources concerned with improving opportunities and techniques for this active interaction.

In a recent Leverage Point Blog post on this subject, Janice Molloy reflects the more positive move to collaborative reflection and action that is happening saying – “If there’s any bright spot, from what I’ve seen in the media, more and more people seem to be acknowledging our collective role in the larger issue at stake–that of oil dependency. And as systems thinking teaches, when we acknowledge that we are part of the problem, then we can start being part of the solution. … Let’s assume collective responsibility for creating a better future by working to ensure that the current crisis leads to fundamental changes–at all levels.”

More resources on community resilience and systems thinking are available through the Learning for Sustainability portal.

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